Giving the annual lecture of the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute, President McAleese lauded the initiative as "the most inclusive educational adventure ever to be undertaken in the Highlands and Islands".
She received an honorary fellowship from UHI, which aims for full university status by 2007.
President McAleese, a former pro-vice chancellor of Queen's University in Belfast, also praised the work of Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic college in Skye, where the lecture took place, and its key role in developing rapidly growing cultural and linguistic links between Ireland and Scotland.
She stressed the importance of education in creating a "cultural buoyancy" which would lead to economic self-confidence and a "stirring of the imaginations of local entrepreneurs".
Education had created the "Celtic tiger" economy in Ireland, President McAleese said, after decades of exporting talent.